Alone in the Dark may have kicked off the survival horror genre and Resident Evil might have popularised it, but Tecmo's (of DOA Xtreme Beach Volleyball infamy) latest foray into video games featuring fully clothed female protagonists is arguably the most genuinely creepy game ever made.
Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly tells the tale of a pair of Japanese school girls, Mio and Mayu, who while wandering through the woods discover a lost village, ominously referred to as "All God's Village". The plot, which involves ghosts, spirits, ritual sacrifice and massacres, is without doubt one of the highlights of the game -- if you can stop hiding behind the couch long enough to follow it.
Bringing the story to life is the game's exceptional production. A highly cinematic work, Project Zero 2 has a unique look, featuring de-saturated colour, static and line effects and ominous lighting. The in-game art direction, along with the numerous cut scenes offering glimpses of ghosts and worse, should bring welcome chills of recognition to fans of Japanese horror films. If you have seen "The Ring", the scenes shown from that movie's killer video should give you an idea of how creepy Project Zero 2 can be.
Like most games in the survival horror genre, Project Zero 2 uses classic 'static' camera angles. This adds considerably to the atmosphere, as the twins are viewed from disorientating perspectives in each scene and the limited view means players catch only the smallest glimpses of wandering spirits. For those players that find the restricted viewpoint frustrating, the Xbox version of Project Zero 2 features a First Person Shooter mode which offers greater camera control.
Unlike more action orientated horror games like Resident Evil, Project Zero 2 aims for the head rather than the throat, offering psychological thrills rather than gore and shock. Obvious weapons that one would take into a spooky lost village, like holy water or the Proton-Pack from the "Ghostbusters" movies aren't available, leaving the twins with only a dusty old camera called the "Camera Obscura". Fortunately, as well as taking nice holiday snaps, this camera also allows the photographer to see spirits and to exorcise ghosts. The camera can be upgraded with a range of film types (with different levels of exorcising power) and other enhancements.
A ghost glimpsed in the third person perspective will send the player scrambling for the camera, which switches the view to first person. This reduces vision to what's directly in front of you, and necessitates frantic scanning of the room for the offending ghost. Once the apparition is in the view finder, the camera will either glow blue if the ghost is benevolent, or red if it is malicious.
While taking snaps of the spirit will eventually exorcise it, the level of damage dealt is determined by the clarity of the photo. A photo taken from a distance will dish some damage to a ghost, but to really inflict pain the player must let the spirit come uncomfortably close before clicking. These combat sequences make for some nerve racking game play, as the player must literally put their game character's life on the line for that perfect shot.
Unfortunately, the game is let down by the exploration segments. Some clues can only be found when the Camera Obscura is equipped, and the restricted third person view point can result in other vital game elements becoming easily missed. This leads to considerable frustration as the player is forced to wander aimlessly around the room, hoping to stumble on the next clue. Compounding this is the excessive backtracking required to solve some of the puzzles and the slightly long wait between save points.
Despite its flaws, Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly is a must for fans of genuine horror. Its excellent production and genuinely unsettling atmosphere make other so-called horror games look about as scary as Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. Gamers with more highly developed twitch muscles in their thumbs, however, may find the action a tad prosaic. If you do rent or buy Project Zero 2, make sure you play the game at night alone, with the lights off and the surround sound up your future therapist will thank you.
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